The Samsung Character for U.S. Cellular is without a doubt a phone destined for the hands of the young or young at heart. If the signature electric blue color doesn't give the demographic away, then the combination of slide-out QWERTY keyboard, icon-rich touch-screen menu, and focus on texting and social messaging will. With its sleeker hardware buttons on the front, the Character is a welcome addition to U.S. Cellular's messaging lineup. The Character costs $39.99 after a $50 mail-in rebate.
With your choice of a vivid blue color in addition to a soberer gray, you could never accuse the Samsung Character of looking drab. You also couldn't accuse it of breaking out of the design mold--we're pretty sure we've seen the electric blue sheen of the unit we reviewed before, on the Samsung Gravity 3 and the Samsung Intensity II, for example. The Character's body is a rounded rectangle with a glossy black face and colored sides and back. A finely pebbled cover aids in grip.
At 4.2 inches tall by 2.2 inches wide by 0.6 inch thick, the Character has comfortable dimensions and heft for a messaging phone, and it weighs a solid 4.2 ounces.
The handset's 2.8-inch TFT QVGA touch screen supports 262,000 colors. The screen would be on the small side if it were needed to enter text, but as it stands, there is no onscreen keyboard and all typing has to go through the physical slide-out QWERTY instead. We're undecided as to whether or not we think that's a good thing. What is good is the screen's responsiveness to touch, which made the three home screens on the Samsung TouchWiz Lite interface easy to navigate. Instead of smaller icons you can place and drag around, the Character presents you with three completely blank screens that you fill at will with shortcut icons roughly the size of a thumb tip. Although we had some complaints about having to manage the widgets by dragging them on and off a widget bar, we like the interaction overall.
Below the home screens are static buttons that pull up the dialer, the address book, the messaging menu, and the application menu, which likewise features larger icons.
Beneath the screen are three hardware buttons for Talk, Clear, and End/Power. On the right spine sit the unlock screen and the camera shutter button. The volume rocker is on the left, and there's a Micro-USB charging port at the bottom. Pry back the cover from around the 1.3-megapixel camera lens to find the microSD card slot, which can take up to 32GB of expandable memory.
Although the keys don't rise too high above the surface, we found typing on the Character to be pretty pleasant, with the tactile keys snapping back after we pressed them. It's just too bad there's no default spell-checker in the text message composition window, there isn't automatic capitalization, and it doesn't add a period after you press the space bar twice.
There's room in the Character's address book for 1,000 contacts, with space in each entry for multiple phone numbers, an e-mail address, a calling group, and a note. You can assign a photo ID to a contact (we couldn't make ours center on the face) and can choose from among 17 preinstalled ringtones or silent mode.
Text and picture messaging are the Character's communication mainstays, but there's also an app for social networking. For the basics, the Character has a calendar, an alarm clock, a memo pad, a sketch pad, a world clock, a stop watch and timer, a calculator and tip calculator, and a converter.
Bluetooth, speakerphone, and voice commands are also onboard, as is a devicewide search feature that you don't see often except on smartphones. Unfortunately, it would be more useful as a home-screen widget.
The Character is also outfitted with a browser and a basic music player that you can use with the microSD card installed (thumbs-up for being able to add playlists on the fly.) There are also some preloaded apps--like the Easyedge storefront, a backup app, mSpot radio, and a demo version of Pac-Man.
When it comes to the camera, the best we can say is that it's got plenty of shooting options. Onscreen controls flank the viewfinder and let you tap to adjust the resolution, white-balance options, timer presets, shooting modes, brightness, and so on. We also truly appreciate the editing options, including rotating or resizing an image and adding effects. Less impressive is the photo quality itself: indoor images were washed in gray. Outdoor shots were also less vibrant when we compared the captured image with the real-life view. The phone also requires precisely held hands to avoid blurring the photo.
We tested the dual-core (CDMA 800/1900) Samsung Character on U.S. Cellular's roaming network. Call quality was strong and clear overall, with a purr of white noise. On their end, callers said we sounded very clear.
Samsung Character call quality sample Listen now:
When it came to speakerphone, the microphone was better than the speakers. Call volume dropped in half at our end. Maxing out the volume helped with audibility, but the buzzy sound that distorted our caller's voice at the higher levels became louder as well. We still wouldn't be able to hear in a noisy room, or gather a group around to hear the call. On their end, callers said that with the exception of standard room echo, speakerphone sounded pretty good, perhaps a little softer, but still understandable and clear.
3G performance was OK but not great on the Character, but then again, we did have to test it outside of U.S. Cellular's home network. CNET's mobile-optimized site loaded in about 35 seconds, with sketchy images when available. The New York Times mobile site loaded in about 17 seconds.
The Samsung Character may not have it all, but we will say that it seems to do a good job of keeping its audience in mind with quick ways in and out of the features, and with enough customization (read: widgets) to hold its users' interest. An e-mail app wouldn't hurt, and the social-networking apps aren't as effortless or as powerful as you'd find on a smartphone, but we wouldn't expect them to be. Call quality should satisfy families, and the keyboard is responsive enough to keep heavy texters chatting away. With its reasonable price and good in-hand feel, the Character is a good pick for people shopping for a first cell phone.